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Last week in the New Mexico desert military and civilian bomb squads faced a week of intense training organized by Sandia National Laboratories at the 12th Annual Robot Rodeo , To test their skills, bomb squads piloted their bots to invade crashed aircraft, explore faux radioactive disaster areas, and climb stairs.

"Everyone else runs away from the bomb, and these people go in," says Jake Deuel robotics manager at Sandia and coordinator of the rodeo. His goal is to support bomb squads in real situations and to learn what their robots can and can not do. "We train these guys to get home safely," he says.

Some of the created scenarios have been developed to test the capabilities and problem-solving capabilities of robot operators. One exercise is based on, for example, the movie Red Dawn published in 1984, in which youths fight invading forces during the First World War. The competing robots had to go into a downed fighter jet Phantom F-4 to "get the black box and some of the fancy electronic gadgets so we can figure out what the enemy is doing," says Deuel. In another exercise, bomb squads had to be collaborated to find the sources of an underground radiation leak and contain them.

"It's not as if you drive remote-controlled cars, it's complicated, there are broken wings and sharp objects, challenging areas to bring the robot to," says Deuel. That's why this kind of training is so important. The scenarios are "about robot manipulation and control, which revolve around a funny little story".

The Verge talked to Deuel about robots that are so important about alien blood collection and why robot training.

This interview has been reviewed for clarity and brevity.

Accompany me by what a robot rodeo looks like.

I usually have 10 to 12 teams, which means I usually need 10 to 12 different scenarios. Imagine a scenario as a vignette. You usually only get 90 minutes. In each scenario, there is a script that one of my evaluators would read to them. The bomb experts could ask some questions like, "Are we looking for six or seven of these points?" The evaluator can answer this question. Usually they say, "We have no further information, you have 90 minutes, start!" And then they must begin to solve the problem.


A robot explores an underground facility and searches for radiation at the 12th Annual Robot Rodeo.
Photo: Sandia National Laboratories

Is it a BYO robot?

Instead of bringing your own bottle, bring your own bot to the event. I'll probably misunderstand the saying, but it's "train how you fight, how you train." If I gave them something else or something else, that would not be the best way to get training points. It must be your gear – you know what it does, you know what it does not do. So, in fact, they'll turn up in their bomb truck, and these scenarios are usually geographically located around Sandia Labs, which is located at Kirtland Air Force Base here in Albuquerque. And so I will distribute some scenarios so that the teams do not all see each other. I have to find a place or something that looks like a burned-out building or a village or subway, so you have to find a place to hold a scenario.


Video: Vince Gasparich / Sandia National Laboratories [19659014] Did I correctly hear in the video from last year's Robot Rodeo that you made an alien blood collection scenario? Is there something Sandia knows we do not do that?

We like to build a scenario around the Men in Black films. And when we did that, we had access to an old C-130 fuselage . And in this case, "Galaxy Air" – this is the airline in the Men in Black movies – aliens, and these aliens were dependent on life support. And we had a recirculation pump that you would have at a party with a punch bowl pumping the liquid. So we set this up with a bunch of red Kool-Aid representing the blood. For example, they had to get into the fuselage, which was not trivial. They had a small plastic cup that they had to pick up in their little robot gripper and not have to drop to bring it under this stream of dripping blood.

But then they also had to take a sample of something else. And then it's like, "Oh wait, I already have that cup of blood in my grapple, and I'm supposed to do something else." It's like, "Do you know what, shoot, I should have done the other task first, and then taken the cup." Well, it might sound weird – and that's it – but it really trains them to think about their operations and think about it. Do not just excite yourself and get on the plane.


Video: Vince Gasparich / Sandia National Laboratories

Why is it important for bomb experts to practice controlling their robots?

Driving your robot is a ruinous ability – just like playing sports or playing a video game. If you're a kid and you play a video game, it takes hours. But you put it down for weeks or a month and then you try to resume it, and it's like, "Okay, how do I do that? Where is the switch? Is it this switch that I fold up or flip down?" just keep practicing it and the robot rodeo forces you to do that.

Years ago, we made a scenario where the basic purpose of this scenario was just the ability of the operator. They drove the robot, picked up a frisbee from the ground, hung it on a clothes rack, drove a mousetrap in the grapple over these spare tires without letting it fall, all these things. Imagine that there are many buttons and switches that control all the joints of the robot and how you drive, and a joystick that you can move for the camera, and another to fire the weapon systems. Imagine that and we put a tupper box with two holes on it so you can not see your hands.

Oh boy, were you mad at me? But in the end, they said, "That was fantastic, because I realized I needed to get better." Because in a real life-or-death situation, when you're out there with this robot you can not look down on your hands. You must have trained enough to instinctively know where all the buttons or buttons are. So you focus on the task of disabling this device or making it safe or saving someone.


Video: Vince Gasparich / Sandia National Laboratories

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